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Review: YouTube Premium's 'Champaign ILL' mines buddies' downward mobility for laughs

Review: YouTube Premium's 'Champaign ILL' mines buddies' downward mobility for laughs
Adam Pally as Ronnie and Sam Richardson as Alf in the YouTube Premium comedy "Champaign ILL," about a pair of friends knocked back from the hip-hop high life to the normalcy of their hometown. (Mark Hill / YouTube Premium)

"Champaign ILL," which begins streaming Wednesday on YouTube Premium, formerly YouTube Red, is a solidly constructed lost-status comedy about emerging, none too quickly, from a state of arrested development. Adam Pally, whom you may remember from "The Mindy Project" or "Happy Endings," and Sam Richardson (from "Veep" and "Detroiters") are the knuckleheads knocked back overnight from international lives of leisure to ones of involuntary normalcy in the Midwest city that gives the series its name.

In a brief prologue we meet the younger selves of Ronnie, Alf and Lou, hanging out in Champaign on grad night. Ronnie is bound for Yale and Alf to the local university in the company of his girlfriend, Courtney. But when Lou announces that his mixtape has got him signed to a major label and that he is about to go on tour, Alf and Lou postpone their plans “for a year" — “the sickest year ever” — to be his crew.

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Suddenly, 15 years have passed and Ronnie (Pally) and Alf (Richardson) are still traveling with Lou (Jay Pharoah, guesting), now a superstar who lunches with the mayor of Paris and has his own "signature Pringle" in development. ("They say they were able to get that stank in there," reports his assistant, Craig, played by Neil Casey, "but they want you to taste it first.")

Jay Pharoah (center) guests as rap superstar Lou, flanked by friends Alf (Sam Richardson, left) and Ronnie (Adam Pally) in the YouTube Premium comedy "Champaign ILL."
Jay Pharoah (center) guests as rap superstar Lou, flanked by friends Alf (Sam Richardson, left) and Ronnie (Adam Pally) in the YouTube Premium comedy "Champaign ILL." (YouTube Premium)

A life of unearned privilege and endless partying on Lou's payroll has made Ronnie and Alf soft in mind and body. Then Lou dies in a video-shoot accident – I told you, Pharoah was just guesting – and the party's over, as a song older than hip-hop says. The pretty balloons have been burst, the moon taken away.

Created by Jordan Cahan, David Caspe, and brothers Daniel and Matthew Libman, whose collective credits include "Happy Endings," "The Mick" and "Breaking In," it's a sometimes very funny, well-played, highly profane, professional-level comedy, more than a little reminiscent of "Eastbound & Down," in which Danny McBride played an egotistical major-league pitcher bounced back to teaching phys ed in his old hometown. There is something too of "Schitt's Creek" in its opening seasons, though “Champaign” is nastier, in multiple meanings of that word. It's not the world's newest concept.

Nothing that meant anything in their old world matters to the people in their new (older) one, ordinary folks to whom their tales of sex and drugs and desperate celebrity name-dropping mean nothing and who largely regard them with mockery or pity. The pair puts up walls of bravado to combat "this developing narrative going around town that since Lou died we're not doing well or whatever." Having lost both their platinum meal ticket and the alternative bright futures they forfeited to chase the sexier dream, they are back to less than zero -- unable to understand or accept their situation yet continually declaring their mastery of it.

"It was so smart to strip away all the distractions," says Ronnie, in a room full of nothing.

"Yeah," says Alf, "all the stuff we don't need so we can just focus on getting all that stuff back."

Adam Pally, left, and Sam Richardson co-star in "Champaign ILL," a new comedy from YouTube Premium.
Adam Pally, left, and Sam Richardson co-star in "Champaign ILL," a new comedy from YouTube Premium. (Bob Mahoney / YouTube Premium)

Alf expects he will be able to take up again with Courtney (Sabrina Revelle), "the love of my life," who, uninterested, reminds him that “I had a full ride to Stanford but chose Illinois to be with you, and then you chose to go be Lou's paid friend instead, and I didn't see you again until ... he died." Ronnie, who got a perfect score on the SAT ("I smoked that exam like the CIA smoked Biggie") assumes Yale will honor his multiply deferred acceptance. They cook up ideas to remake their fortune — "Mr. Potato Head but for urns," "reverse ketchup" and "Diamond Eye," for people who can afford to lose an eye and replace it with a jewel: "I haven't figured out all the Diamond Eye details yet," says Ronnie, “but think about the clientele.”

Pally and Richardson team well and keep Ronnie and Alf sufficiently sympathetic even as they are continually trying — which is, after all, the response they have been formed to elicit (as the Three Stooges before them). It puts the show on that famous fine line between stupid and clever, a line it does manage to walk with fair coordination, working both sides to good effect.

I have seen three episodes of “Champaign ILL” out of 10, and it's clear that their humbling is far from complete — there is a nice extended joke on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in episode three, with a killer punchline — and that their redemption will be put off as long as possible. In the movie-length version of the story, they would achieve some minimally acceptable self-awareness within a couple of hours. But TV has no choice but to test your patience; this story may last years.

‘Champaign ILL’

Not rated

Where: YouTube Premium

When: Starting Wednesday

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